Virtual Worlds - Where are the rules?

“A recent virtual meeting of 200 IBMers was held in a recreation of Beijing’s Forbidden City, where the avatars of the company’s chief scientist, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, and CEO, Sam Palmisano, announced a $100million investment program in innovative technologies, including the business use of virtual worlds.” (Information Age, October 2007).

IBM are described as being a “passionate believer” in virtual worlds. But I wonder if we shouldn’t be heeding the words of Professor Clive Holtham, of the Cass Business School, who says “communities such as Second Life…are little better than traps for the gullable.”

Here is a quick primer on some of the risks we should be thinking about:

1. Identity Management. There are no identity guarantees in the public virtual world. Any avatar can claim to be any real-life person.

2. A business cannot manage its reputation within a virtual world where there are no controls over what can occur around it.

3. Conversations cannot have any assurance of privacy or confidentiality within a public virtual world

4. Virtual world client applications are frequently updated with a resulting lack of control over software within the corporate environment

I’m as aware as anyone that CIOs are speculating on potential business benefits of virtual worlds and looking for revenue generating opportunities. I reckon most will be dissapointed. The benefits do not at this time outweigh the risks and investing money in, for example, Second Life is, in my opinion, simply gambling. The only winner is going to be the vendor.

Even if I’m wrong and businesses begin to accumulate valuable assets, who’s to protect them? Let’s keep in mind that virtual assets only virtually exist. They are but bits and bytes in memory somewhere on a server – and probably a virtual one at that!

Here’s another interesting and disturbing angle reported here

A recent guild disbandment in World of Warcraft may mark the beginning of the decline of “Virtual Worlds” into “Virtual Countries,” as conflict of law issues make it nearly impossible to fairly enforce rights and duties….Facing negative press and potential legal problems in Germany, Linden Lab took steps to remove ageplay from Second Life a few months ago. Though a statute criminalizing virtual child pornography was deemed unconstitutional in the United States (Aschroft v. Free Speech Coalition), U.S. citizens (who would otherwise be allowed to engage in ageplay in Second Life) are barred from it due to the laws of foreign nations, including German and Israeli law.

Still want to get involved? Fact is that we’re only just starting to understand some of the issues that arise from virtual world content. It seems like we’re throwing the usual rules of business out of the window and jumping head first into virtual worlds because CIO Magazine or Gartner have told us that it’s a good idea, without performing any of our own due diligence or risk assessments first.

What I do know is that Second Life et al are here to stay. They can’t be uninvented. Please consider the risks to reputation, and the rules of gambling apply: don’t risk what you can’t afford to lose.